The future will set you free: themes of regression and progression in Octavia Butler’s work

[SPOILER ALERT for the Xenogenesis trilogy and Earthseed series]

Human societies are constantly struggling between the past and the future, rarely fully inhabiting the present. We see evidence of this conflict today more plainly than ever, as climate change threatens humanity’s long-term survival while U.S. politics is preoccupied with the fallout of loss of white male status. The slogans of populist politicians of today are the same as those of yesterday: Make _______ great again, implying we must turn around to recapture our glory. In my own lifetime, I have observed that in the face of diverse threats to humanity’s survival, instead of confronting our destiny with clear eyes and purpose and shaping it into its best form, many would rather cling desperately to an idealized vision of what we once were. There is, of course, comfort in the familiar, and the past is infinitely more familiar than the future will ever be—although as Parable of the Sower‘s Lauren Olamina would point out, with an understanding of the past, the future becomes more knowable. I would imagine that during her own life Octavia Butler noticed a similar pattern of nostalgic avoidance as I have; there is much in her work to indicate that she did. She certainly identified a clear need for us let the past go in order to enable the future.

Much of Butler’s work features a tension between past and future playing out in the present. The main character in Kindred is supernaturally tied to the past, being violently jolted to slave times against her will. In Mind of My Mind, the past is embodied in Doro, the heroine’s father, whom she must battle to pave the way for a new form of society. But in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, as well as in the Earthseed series, the main character is fighting regressive forces within humanity who cannot accept that change has occurred, is occurring, and that things will never be the same again. Both Lilith (the heroine of Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago), and Lauren Olamina (the heroine of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents), are reluctant pioneers who, despite their reservations about the struggles ahead and what they will be required to do in order to survive, have determined that humanity’s collective survival lies in the future, not the past. Lilith, one of only a handful of survivors of humanity’s last nuclear war, must convince her fellow humans to accept an interbreeding program with a physically revolting species in exchange for the chance to perpetuate some of humanity’s genetic legacy and live on a restored Earth for a time. Lauren Olamina must build a multiethnic, collectivist movement that believes humanity’s destiny lies among the stars—in the midst of of a hypernationalist and religious fundamentalist revival in a United States reduced to developing country status by climate change.

Lilith is herself resistant to the idea of interbreeding with the Oankali, the alien species who have rescued her from the dying remains of Earth. The Oankali are masters of genetic manipulation, and have sustained their civilization for much longer than humanity. They survive through trading their genetic material with other species, changing both participants in the process and birthing a new species. The situation with the Oankali is admittedly coercive, in the sense that Lilith is basically captive for quite a while and denied reading and writing material. Eventually more information is provided to Lilith, and it becomes less of a captive situation. She comes to accept that humanity had pretty much destroyed the planet, and that without the remediation of the Oankali, it would not have supported life anymore. Reluctantly, she agrees to act as the mother to a new species, and to try to persuade as many humans as she can to engage in the gene trade with the Oankali. Having overcome her own resistance to letting go of the past, she must now surmount that of forty other humans. This is, predictably, where the majority of the conflict lies.

Once released on the remediated Earth, many humans form resister colonies and refuse to participate in the interbreeding program. The Oankali have sterilized humans to ensure that they can only breed the Oankali way (in a threesome with a human male, a human female, and an ooloi—genderless Oankali that are especially adept at genetic manipulation and can excrete substances that promote euphoric highs). The Oankali are also much stronger than humans, so the resisters had no hope of overpowering them. And in Adulthood Rites, we find out the Oankali’s living ships will eventually consume all of the renewed Earth’s resources, leaving a lifeless, uninhabitable husk behind—in response to this discovery, Lilith’s first half Oankali/half human son convinced the Oankali to offer the resisters a settlement on Mars, along with restored fertility. Yet by Imago some of them were still refusing, particularly a group of interbred humans with a genetic tendency to grow tumors and develop other ailments, descended from a human woman who discovered she was fertile. These humans built up an ideology around the Oankali as devils and Lilith as a supernatural La Malinche-type figure, preferring to breed family members with each other and suffer than accept that the past they were trying to preserve was destroying their future.

Lauren Olamina is a teenager forming ideas about the world that are contradictory to those she’s being taught. She rejects her Baptist father’s religion, instead developing her own philosophy based on Change as deity. As her world is in upheaval, she identifies change as the primary constant in the universe. The adults around her seem, in some respects, to be waiting for good times to come again; seem like they don’t actually believe that this is now and that was then, and although we can understand, honor, and draw power from the past, then will never be now again. Lamenting and preparing for the return of the past occupies space that belongs to the future, and Olamina understands this intrinsically. Instead of allowing adults’ nostalgia to make her complacent, she prepares for the future spiritually and materially: She develops her Earthseed philosophy that identifies God as Change and humanity’s Destiny as colonizing other planets, and she packs an emergency “go bag” she can grab at a moment’s notice in case she needs to abandon her home.

The United States in Parable of the Sower is presented with a similar choice as we had in 2016, a choice between a presidential candidate who at least paid lip service to being forward-looking and one who was proudly regressive. Reality mirrors fiction; faced with fiscal collapse due to climate change, Butler’s U.S. decides to turn back towards the past and assents to a rollback of their civil rights. Slavery is revived in pockets of the country. Company towns return, embraced by many people seeking refuge from increasing violence who do not know, or do not believe, their exploitative history. Olamina identifies a knowledge of the past, a consideration of consequences, as vital to survival—one of her Earthseed verses suggests considering the consequences of one’s behavior as a method of getting along with God. She identifies considering the future as similarly crucial in this verse:

A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s plaything,
God’s prey.

(Parable of the Sower 31)

For societies, understanding the consequences of behavior entails understanding history. Shortsightedness and fear are embodied in regressive politics that emphasize denial over futurist problem-solving, precluding the ability to plan successfully. Occupying one’s mind with the past crowds out room for forethought.

The past and the future each have their place in our present. Blind nostalgia is useless, but an appreciation of the past is essential; likewise, paralyzing apprehension is not helpful, but envisioning ideal futures and potential paths towards them is key to ensuring best outcomes. Butler had a keen understanding of the mental balancing act required to successfully navigate pasts and futures while in the present, and she imbued her characters with this knowledge. Their experiences point to one conclusion: If we are to build better futures, humanity must let go of the past—before it is too late.

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